Tasty Therapy

Medicinal Mushrooms: A focus on Reishi, Shiitake, Maitake: Health benefits include cancer fighting, cholesterol lowering and more! Help yourself to a serving of health.

If we think about mushrooms at all, we may consider them a tasty addition to a salad or casserole. In fact, our of an estimated 38,000 species of mushrooms, most provide a wealth of protein, fiber, B vitamins, and vitamin C, as well as calcium and other minerals. and at least three species have demonstrated phenomenal healing potential: maitake, shiitake, and reishi. These medicinal mushrooms have been shown to boost heart health; lower the risk of cancer; promote immune function; ward off viruses, bacteria, and fungi; reduce inflammation; combat allergies; help balance blood sugar levels; and support the body’s detoxification mechanisms.

Why are therapeutic mushrooms becoming increasingly popular in North America? Harriet Beinfield, acupuncturist and co-author of Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, explains: ” the movement began with healthy food in the late ’60s; now it’s health medicine. People are interested in medicinal mushrooms because they’ve been used effectively for thousands of years”.

Maitake: Fights cancer, balances blood sugar

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) means “dancing mushroom” in Japanese. Many doctors in Japan use maitake to lower blood pressure and blood lipids, tow key risk factors in cardiovascular disease. But maitake may best be known for its cancer-fighting properties. It contains grifolan, an important bet-glucan polysaccharide (molecule composed of many sugar molecules linked together). Grifolan has been shown to activate macrophages, a type of cell consider the ” heavy artillery”: of the immune system, explains Larry A. Walker, Ph.D., R.D., author of “Natural products update,” published in Drug Topics, June 1997. D-fraction, one of the polysaccharides in maitake, also energized the cellular immune system.

The evidence confirming maitake’s therapeutic value — both in and out of the laboratory — is impressive. laboratory studies have shown that maitake extract can block the growth of tumors and boost the immune function of mice with cancer.

Haroaki Nanba reported the findings of the following study in “Maitake D-fraction: healing and preventing potentials for cancer,” published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, Feb/Mar 1996; In a non-randomized clinical study, 165 individuals with advanced cancer used maitake D-fraction. Patients received either maitake D-fraction alone or with chemotherapy. Maitake was found effective against leukemia and stomach and bone cancers. Responses were further improved when maitake D-fraction and chemotherapy were used together. Individuals receiving maitake D-fraction also experienced relief from the side effects of chemotherapy, such as loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, hair loss, and deficiency of white blood cells.

People with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) may also benefit from maitake, according to researchers Hiroaki Nanba and Keiko Kubo, authors of Mushroom biology and mushroom products. Researchers investigated a specific, high-molecular polysaccharide in maitake called the X-fraction. They found that mice given maitake had an increased ability to recognize glucose, and the control group had higher blood glucose levels. The researchers suggested that maitake can reduce insulin resistance, thereby increasing insulin sensitivity. The X-fraction appears to be the active compound with anti-diabetic properties.

Beinfield also recommends maitake for stomach ailments. “It aids digestion by regulating the stomach and intestines, and helps eliminate food stagnation,” she explains.

Shiitake: Lowers cholesterol, combats viruses

Shiitake mushrooms (Lentinula edodes) have been a mainstay of Chinese medicine for thousands of years. As far back as the 14th century, Chinese physician Wu-Rui described shiitake as a food that activates “Qi”. Roughly translated, qi is the circulating life force, a function of which is to protect the immune system. The ancient Chinese believed that shiitake dispelled hunger, treated colds, and nourished the blood circulatory system. Scientists today are finding that shiitake can help the body combat heart disease, cancer, and viruses.

Research conducted in Japan in the 1970s identified a specific amino acid in shiitake that helps speed up the processing of cholesterol in the liver. In a 1974 study (reported by Kenneth Jones in “Shiitake Medicine in a mushroom,” Herbs for Health, Jan/Feb 1997), 40 elderly individuals and 420 young women consumed nine grams of dried shiitake or the equivalent amount of fresh shiitake (90g) every day for 7 days. After a week, total cholesterol levels had dropped seven to 15% in the older group, and 6 to 12% in the young women.

Like maitake, shiitake also appears to be a formidable cancer fighter. In 1969, scientists at Tokyo’s National Center Research Institute isolated a polysaccharide compound from shiitake they called lentinan. In laboratory trials, lentinan caused tumors in mice to regress or vanish in 80 to 100% of the subjects. Lentinan appears to stimulate immune-system cells to clear the body of tumor cells.

What’s more, shiitake appears to be effective against some of the more serious viruses we face today: HIV and hepatitis B. Test-tube studies in Japan indicate that LEM (short of Lentinula edodes myucelium), an extract of shiitake mushroom, is more lethal to HIV-infected cells that AZT, a well-known medication developed to delay the progress of AIDS. In other test-tube studies, LEM lignins have been shown to block HIV cells from reproducing and damaging helpful T cells. These lignins also stop cell damage from herpes simplex I and II, two viral infections that often plague individuals with HIV.

Hepatitis B is a liver disease transmitted through transfusions, the use of unclean needles, or other blood-to-blood contact. In the 1980s, a trial involving 16 clinics in Japan investigated the impact of LEM on hepatitis B. The studies indicated that LEM may stimulate the body to produce antibodies. Forty individuals with chronic hepatitis B ingested six grams of LEM daily for four months. All of the patients experienced relief of hepatitis B symptoms, and in 15, the virus was inactivated.

Beinfield points our that shiitake “can be used as a food as well as a medicine. It treats nutritional deficiencies and improves immunity through diet”. Because of its appealing flavor and rich nutritional makeup, vegetarians sometimes use shiitake mushrooms as a substitute for animal protein.

Reishi: Good for Respiratory and Spiritual Health

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) has a dark, reddish-orange cap. The Latin word lucidum means “shiny” or “brilliant”, and refers to the varnished surface of the reishi cap. For four millenia, the Chinese and Japanese have used reishi as a medicine for liver disorders, hypertension, and arthritis. Through in vitro and human studies, today’s researchers have found that reishi has anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and antioxidant properties. In vitro experiments also indicate that reishi may help fight tumors. In addition, a protein isolated from reishi – Ling Zhi-8 – may reduce the risk of transplant rejection.

Beinfield points out that reishi is particularly beneficial for individuals with asthma and other respiratory complaints. “It has a healing effect on the lungs,” she says. “Reishi is good for respiratory strength and for coughing”. At least one population study confirms this claim. When more the 2000 Chinese with chronic bronchitis took reishi syrup during the 1970s, within two weeks, 60 to 90% felt better and reported an improved appetite, according to “Medicinal mushrooms,” by Christopher Hobbs, published in Herbs for Health, Jan/Feb 97.

Reishi also has non-material benefits. Beinfield explains, “Reishi is said to elevate the spirit; it’s a mood-elevating substance.” Traditionally, reishi is believed to help transform the individual into a more spiritual being. Just as mushrooms transform decayed material on the ground into life-giving nourishment, reishi converts metabolic and psychic waster (hostility and other negative feelings), thereby raising the spirit and unshackling the mind. Individuals can consume reishi every day to support immune function, peace of mind, and physical vigor. Reishi is available in syrups, soups, teas, tinctures, tablets, and by injection. Form and dosage should be decided with the help of a healthcare professional.

Final Words

Maitake, shiitake, and reishi mushrooms have many overlapping properties: all boost immune function, all support cardiovascular health, and all show promise in lowering the risk of — or treating — cancer. However, maitake is specifically recommended for the stomach and intestines, as well as blood sugar levels; shiitake treats nutritional deficiencies and liver ailments; and reishi promotes respiratory health and spirituality.

Medicinal mushrooms offer both dietary and therapeutic benefits. As natural medicines, maitake, shiitake, and reishi are like to become a staple in the natural medicine of tomorrow, as they have in the past.

Source: Nature’s Impact Dec / Jan – 1997/98